Big Data Points the Way to Water Resiliency
Brian Dunnigan, Water Resources
February 17, 2022
We are rapidly approaching a water crossroads in our nation. Will we choose the route to resiliency, or remain on a pathway that leads to more difficult, more costly, and more painful outcomes?
As I contemplate a career in water resources that spans four decades, I see reason for hope despite the many challenges ahead. My measured optimism flows from two primary factors – a growing societal recognition of the value of water resources and the emergence of new data analysis technology that could strengthen the resiliency of our resources.
In fact, data accessibility is already proving to be a game changer when it comes to our ability to better manage water. The changes I witnessed over the first 30 years of my career as an engineer and public policy maker were gradual compared to the leaps I’ve seen over the last 10 years, when I’ve worked primarily as a design and engineering consultant. Looking ahead, I expect the pace of progress only to accelerate when it comes to data accessibility.
To explain why, it’s important to understand something about how data has traditionally been used in water resources management. We have collected and acted on a host of hydrometric data for decades, from groundwater fluctuations, stream flow changes, irrigation volumes, rainfall amounts, evapotranspiration rates, flood events, drought severity, and climatic trends.
Water resources managers have long used the data as best they could to address their individual areas of responsibility, designing solutions for flood control, floodplain management, irrigation allocations, recreational amenities, or wildlife conservation. In effect, however, we employed a compartmentalized approach. It’s not that science failed to recognize the
interconnectivity of entire drainage basins, but it lacked the insights needed to make the strongest, evidence-based decisions for system-wide management.
In addition, interpreting data in the past was difficult for those outside of academia, and as a result, the information too often failed to trickle down to the level of applied science. What’s more, translating data into knowledge, and action, took a lot of time and financial resources. Frankly, the results sometimes failed to move the needle.
Enter information technology, which has already changed the landscape of water management. We now have easy access to huge datasets, powerful data collection capability, cloud-based platforms, and artificial intelligence (AI) tools that allow us to better account for all variables that influence a water system. Instead of massive mainframes, we now run unlimited management scenarios using only a microprocessor and an internet connection. Because of this technology, water managers can synthesize the myriad data streams needed to model highly complex water systems much faster and more cost effectively than ever before.
These tools allow us to amplify the power of data by revealing patterns and relationships that were impossible to see before. One of Olsson’s key project partners, Sitka Technology Group, says modern systems can use data to unlock information, knowledge, insight, and finally, wisdom.
Leveraging data in this way motivated Olsson’s development of GET (the Groundwater Evaluation Toolbox), a cloud-based platform that evaluates the impact of multiple management scenarios on aquifers. GET, in turn, has served as a key element in our work to help design innovative groundwater sustainability projects in Nebraska and California.
Another reason for optimism is greater awareness of the challenges that confront our water resources like climate change, population growth, and environmental contamination. More policy makers and citizens recognize the need to address the nation’s aging water treatment plants, distribution lines, and storge facilities. Frequently, the water infrastructure in most need of attention exists in our most vulnerable communities.
An urgency to address water challenges is writ large in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) passed by Congress in 2021. The IIJA funds the largest investment in clean drinking water and wastewater infrastructure in the nation’s history. A common theme in the many projects that will be funded by the IIJA is “resiliency.” In a major floodplain study designed for a municipal client, Olsson defined resiliency as the ability to meet the challenges of today and safeguard against the uncertainties of the future.
As we approach the water crossroads, professionals are better equipped than ever before to help ensure our water resources remain resilient well into the future. And as I transition into retirement, I am proud of our industry’s progress and hopeful for what’s to come.
Brian Dunnigan is a water resources subject matter expert with Olsson. He has experience in integrated water management, state water planning, and resiliency planning. Before joining Olsson in 2014, Brian served as Director of the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources and held leadership roles in multiple professional associations.